Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
A number of years ago, I was at a party and a male friend attended wearing a dress, make up, and jewelry. Knowing how thoughtful he always was with regard to everything he did, I commented on how spectacular he looked, and what a great combination the look was on him… I knew that there was a story to hear. Why a story? Surely it was just Purim – the one day of the Jewish year that cross-dressing is permitted; perhaps even encouraged? All in good fun, right?
He looked me in the eye and said, ‘this holiday is a very important day in the year for me. It is the one day of the year when it is officially ok to wear clothes that make me feel most like me. Who I really am. Without it being a big deal. Without being ridiculed, or worrying about whether I’d be fired for wearing these clothes.’
I understood what he was saying. For some people, part of the fun of Purim is dressing up, and sometimes in the clothes most commonly associated with the opposite gender. And, in that context, we usually call that ‘cross dressing’, although ‘drag’ is probably the more accurate terminology for someone who is intentionally wearing the clothing associated with the opposite gender, but doing so in an over-the-top, performative kind of way. But that’s not how my friend was dressed. His clothing was not a covering over of identity for the entertainment of others, but a deeper and truer expression of inner identity – cross dressing as an expression of self.
Through my own experience, I’ve come to believe that some of our deepest spiritual insights come from within – from getting in touch with our deepest sense of self. Perhaps this is the only thing that we can legitimately label ‘true’ in this life. So what do we do when we find something within Jewish tradition that appears to be a God-given statement that is counter to our inner truth?
In Deuteronomy 22:5 it states: ‘A man’s attire shall not be on a woman, nor may a man wear a woman’s garment’. The rabbis of past generations made an exception for Purim as a festival when reality is intentionally turned on its head. Rashi, (c. 1040-1105 C.E.), explains the verse to apply to a specific context: “
, a man’s item should not be on a woman: That she should not appear as a man so she can go out among men, for this is only for the purpose of adultery.” Perhaps it was simply a lack of imagination that led to the conclusion that the only possible reason for a woman to try and infiltrate a group of men was to be able to conduct an affair with another man! We need only think of the story of Yentl to know that the desire to study as an equal with men is just one of so many more explanations we could consider.
But, more to the point, what both the and later commentaries fail to recognize is the way that genuine gender expression, which can be independent of sexuality, may lead a person to truly desire to wear garments that are not traditionally associated with their gender in their particular cultural context. We may have socially constructed gender in binary terms, but we are learning from those who are living a different truth that it is more complex than that. And why would that be so wrong?
We cannot truly do justice to the question without pausing to reflect more deeply on cultural understandings of male and female. From the moment a child is born, one of our first questions is ‘boy or girl?’ In cases where the answer is not immediately evident, anxiety often follows and physicians have often made decisions based on outer physical signs to designate a child in one category or another. As we have come to slowly understand transgendered identities, we are learning that gender cannot be so easily defined in this way.
But the picture is more complex than that. We immediately color-code and dress-code children to conform to the gendered labels they have been given. A baby girl dressed in blue may cause confusion. What is also clear from the evolution of gendered codes of dress over time, at least in our Western culture, is that there is much more social acceptability and comfort with women wearing garments also worn by men than the other way around. So it is that women wearing pants are a common occurrence in this day and age, but a man choosing to wear a dress or a skirt is not regarded as normative in day-to-day activity. For many this causes anxiety and uncertainty. We don’t know how to ‘read’ them.
In this instance, I find the Biblical instruction wanting. If my friend finds his religious tradition to inhibit the deepest expression of his true identity, then I find it failing to do the job that religion, in its highest moments, can do by giving expression to our deepest sense of self as we uncover the image of God in which we were uniquely made.
And so, a proposal for a radical re-reading of the Purim tradition. Let us consider what it takes to truly have the courage of Esther and reveal our true selves. Let us express that essence of self in how we dress and present on this festival day. When we speak to our children, let them not feel pressure to conform and dress like all the other children – the girls in their princess outfits and the boys in their superhero costumes. If those are true expressions of who they wish to be at this moment in time, of course! But if we see signs that there is another expression that they yearn for, how powerful it could be to nurture and support that.
What costume would you wear to reveal a deep truth of your innermost essence, sense of self, and identity?
Pronounced: PUR-im, the Feast of Lots, Origin: Hebrew, a joyous holiday that recounts the saving of the Jews from a threatened massacre during the Persian period.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.